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The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel (British Commonwealth, United States, United Nations, 1993) Hardcover – March 22, 1999

3.2 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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One of the great controversies surrounding the Bible in the last 20 years centers on whether it is a historical document and therefore literally "true." Thomas L. Thompson has spent his academic career steeped in this controversy, researching the archaeological histories of Israel and Palestine, and has concluded that the Bible is not a historical document. Thompson contends however, that understanding the Bible as fictive does not have to undermine its truth and integrity. Currently a professor of the Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen, Thompson's The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel aims to separate the Bible from history in order to understand it on its own terms, in the context its authors intended. While parts of The Mythic Past value research and analysis over readability, it is arranged to help aspiring scholars negotiate the vast and complex history of biblical understanding. Thompson believes that "How the Bible is related to history has been badly misunderstood. As we have been reading the Bible within a context that is certainly wrong, and as we have misunderstood the Bible because of this, we need to seek a context more appropriate. As a result, we will begin to read the Bible in a new way." --Jodie Buller

From Publishers Weekly

It is most appropriate that Thompson, who has been a professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen since 1993, takes up the metaphor of Lego blocks to describe a narrative strategy common to the variety of texts that make up biblical literature: a tiny collection of simple shapes imaginatively combined to create an explosion of possible worlds. Thompson writes passionately, persuasively and provocatively, as, for example, when he notes that "it is only as history that the Bible does not make sense." He notes that history demands evidence, not plausibility. It is, in fact, fiction that demands plausibilityAand this is the basis for Thompson's eloquent argument on behalf of a literary approach to biblical material. One thing the Bible does not claim to be, he maintains, is history. To read it as such is to distort it, and to inform archeological and historical research with such a reading compounds the distortion. In Thompson's words, "the misappropriation of ancient texts for purposes contrary to the tradition's intentions, which two generations of theological use of the Bible have now encouraged, is one of those common abuses of intellect" that "contributes to the pollution of the ocean of our language.". Thompson's book is sure to generate significant discussion, and it should be of interest not only to students of biblical literature but to general readers fascinated both by "how stories talk about the past" and by how they form our present.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: British Commonwealth, United States, United Nations, 1993
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (March 22, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465006221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465006229
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #539,839 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This all started with the publication in 1993 of Thompson's, "Early History of the Israelite People: ...," followed by a denial of tenure by Marquette University and his sacking by the institution. Although, Thompson's current resume shows him heading directly to the University of Copenhagen after leaving Marquette, Thompson alludes to a period of academic unemployment and house painting for a living. Some reviewers here feel he should have stuck with the house painting. I think that is mean spirited, but the entire discussion of history and the Bible has become rather uncivil of late. With the publication of this book in 1999, a war of words began between his detractors in and out of the academy and Thompson and his supporters.

Marquette is a Roman Catholic institution and had every right to deny tenure to Thompson and then fire him. A private sectarian institution has no obligation to maintain the employment of a party that does not subscribe to the basic doctrines of the employer when adherence to such doctrines is a term of employment. This was a bad situation for both the institution and the scholar. From Marquette's point of view, they are probably happy they concluded their relationship with Thompson expeditiously. One needs look no further than the example of Robert M. Price at Drew University to understand what happens when a scholar is allowed to operate outside the doctrinal boundaries of an institution for an extended period of time.

This work by Thompson is cranky in its own right as has been pointed out by others. He is dismissive of those who do not agree with him. However, to a large degree, his analysis has energized the discourse both scholarly and otherwise on the Bible and history.
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Format: Paperback
Thompsons has gotten a lot of flack for asserting that the Bible is more literature than history. His position is that this epic, ancient collection of writings is made up of stories created to serve a purpose (delivering a message) and he explores the origins and evolution to support this point.

Whether you believe that there is a historical basis for these stories or if you view them as simple fiction, the Bible can be difficult to understand without some guidance, which The Mythic Past attempts to provide. Thompson is not critical or dismissive in his analysis and meticulously considers various aspects of the Old Testament.

Not the easiest book to read, but one that is a solid study of what Thompson calls the "worlds" of the Bible: Theological, Literary, Intellectual, Social, and Historical. While debating their historicity, he does not necessarily deny the importance of the biblical narratives to humanity. Even if they are just stories, they can still hold universal truths. This book will really make you think. For more on the topic, be sure to check out Abraham in History and Tradition, a real landmark work that is now back in print.
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Format: Hardcover
The book assembles a collection of arguments that compare the past portrayed by the Bible against historical fact, and in doing so reveals that it is misleading to view the Bible as history, or that its purpose was ever to be historical. The book convinced me that most of what I believed to be true was understood as mythological at the time of the Bible's writing. Even showing how the original mythical meaning of the garden story was changed during the Middle Ages to the one generally held today. And although the argument that the Bible was a late development seems rather pretentious, he also suggests that the traditions that the Bible drew upon understood events from the past, but that it is difficult to extract history from myth. Both the New and Old Testaments are discussed, including parallel metaphors in each. But the main message is that if the Bible is viewed as history, its true meaning is no longer understood from its symbolism, which is at the heart of understanding the Bible's theology. Although much more interesting at first, this book could have been 100 pages shorter without any real loss. Another book that tries to explain the source of the myths used to create the Bible is "The Bible Myth" by Gary Greenberg.
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Format: Paperback
The Old Testament is best understood as a complex composite literary creation. The Bible is best understood as literature, and not as a history of the ancient world. This is the major premise of The Mythic Past.
One of the major temptations in reading the Bible is to think that the ancient writers thought and wrote about events like modern historians, carefully checking their facts and qualifying their interpretations. It has been a slow process, but Biblical scholars and archaeologists have begun to realize that trying to dig to establish specific Biblical events is a futile enterprise.
It is important to understand what Thomson is saying and what he is not saying. Thomson is not saying that there was no historical Israel. He is not even saying that there was no David - only that there is no conclusive evidence for King David. In his words he is drawing a contrast between Israel and the Biblical Israel to emphasize a specific point.
It matters little whether the Bible was composed in part during pre-exilic or post-exilic times or earlier. When you read the Bible, you are reading stories and interpretations of stories. The main concern of the writers was the way these stories were told, modified and interpreted. Whether the stories had a kernel of accuracy was a secondary concern to them.
The Biblical writers collected these stories (including poems, songs, etc.) and shaped them into specific books and added chronological anachronisms to place them into a historical framework of the past. But the purpose of this was not to create an accurate history, but to debate and illustrate specific theological points.
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